Freedom of religion needs secular education.
The other day I posted on Facebook a link to a story about Creationists setting up Free Schools. I posted my thoughts with some pretty intemperate language, “religious wackos” was the term I used I believe.
A friend of mine, Brett, who’s opinion I respect greatly challenged me on this. Brett was unhappy at the provocative language I used, and also that as a political voice I should think about how I present my views. Now aside from the fact that I think Brett is massively overestimating my influence (though I do like to have my ego massaged thusly! Thanks dude) I do think some of the points Brett has made deserve to be addressed. And unfortunately a Facebook thread is a pretty unwieldy place to do so. So I have decided to write a self important, pompous blog about it. Been a while….
I should start by prefixing what is about to come by saying that I passionately believe in the freedom to worship. My view is that everybody should be entitled to believe whatever they like, so be you a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Jedi, Plymouth Argyle Fan or Snake Handler that is cool with me. You believe want you want and live your life accordingly and I’ll believe what I want.
I’d like to think that most people, especially thoughtful and moderate people like Brett would agree wholeheartedly with that last paragraph, irrespective of personal faith. In fact I’d go out on a limb here and say I am pretty sure that is the mainstream position in British society.
However I need to point out that there is a massive caveat to this, I believe in the personal freedom of religion. I think that is peoples choice. I don’t believe that other people should be allowed to impose their faith on me, or on others if they don’t want it. In fact I think in order for everyone to have freedom of religion it is necessary for nobody to be able to impose their particular religious belief on others. Put simply if one particular denomination, or faith, can force its particular doctrinal belief on others then they no longer have the freedom to believe what they want.
And for this reason I am a secularist and a passionate one at that. I have a strong view that education should be free from partisan religious viewpoints. It should be consistent and fair and crucially based on proper educational and scientific standards. This should go hand in hand with parents having the freedom to provide their kids with whatever religious worship or additional instruction they desire. But the kids should be entitled to a proper and fair education the same as anybody else.
I do not buy into the idea that religious schools are a good thing I think our society is often fragmented enough. The idea that children will be increasingly ghettoised and only go to school with other children who share their parents faith frightens me. Understanding comes from shared experience, by spending time with other of different faiths and backgrounds it becomes easier to understand and get along.
Now it would be illiberal, and totally against my beliefs, for the state to actively prohibit single religion schools and education (even though I strongly believe it is a bad thing) however I do think this does not place any obligation on the state to actively promote (through state funding) such institutions.
Nor do I believe that that by accepting that religious people have a right to have their kids educated only amongst the company of other kids whose parents share their doctrinal beliefs, that it follows that the state no longer has a role in ensuring they receive a proper education. Children are minors, and whilst parents should be free to bring them up in the religious teachings they desire I think all children are entitled whilst as minors, to have the state guarantee them a proper education, with proper standards. That should mean that religious instruction is permitted but crucially as well as, not instead of, proper educational standards.
There should be no place for partisan dogma, or doctrine, being taught in conventional classes, as if it is the same as proper fact within the context of the academic discipline being taught. If parents want to tell their kids the world is 6000 years old then they should do it in church/mosque/synagogue, Sunday school or after school clubs.
Another thing Brett challenged me on was tarring all the religious with an extremist brush. Something that radical atheists such as myself can easily do through lazy thinking. But I think it is worth making the point that Young Earth creationism, at least in Britain, is an extremist viewpoint. Most Christians in the UK believe that the bible is at least in part allegorical. The mainstream Christian denominations in the UK do not believe that it is incompatible to believe in the teachings of the Bible and Jesus, and accept mainstream scientific fact. In fact I believe the CoE position is that Science is great for the “How” but not so great for the “Why”.
I think it is entirely legitimate to challenge extremist, aggressive and overtly political moves by any faith. I’d say that describing them as “Religious Wackos” on a brief (and intended to be humorous Twitter/Facebook post) does not really move the debate forward but frankly I entirely reserve the right to be outraged by such organisations trying to shove their crazy batshit mental doctrines down the throats of minors. And wanting to do so whilst they are at school.
Martin Luther King, in one of the greatest speeches ever*, said:-
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I have always thought that one of the best ways to accomplish this kid going to school together without segregation, it is for example no coincidence that working class kids, at state schools, in poor and ethnically mixed areas are far more likely to have friends from different ethnic backgrounds than the rest of the population.
And this goes for religious understanding too, a Britain where regardless of race or creed kids get educated together in the same way will be better and more tolerant. It also means that we all have the freedom of belief. Surely this is a better way?
* Interestingly the speech is very religious. MLK was of course a devout man and a preacher. And despite my ardent atheism I still admire him greatly. Our difference in beliefs is irrelevant.